Eric Abbot

Fault 10-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently, it wasn’t exactly easy to find out where a retired security agent slash bodyguard to the rich and powerful like Robert Parson lived. He didn’t have an address listed online, a Facebook profile, or anything like that. Probably because being in that line of work tended to introduce you to a lot of people who would do very bad things with that kind of information. 

Still, Eits promised he could get me something soon. It would just take awhile. So, for the moment, I was stuck on that front. Just like I was stuck on most fronts. Aside from getting the details about that guard guy’s son (his name was Matthew Orens, while his son was Josh) so I could make up a storybook for him. 

Other than that, I still had to find out what was up with Paige, but had no idea of how to get information out of her when she hated my civilian self and wanted to protect my Touched self. I had no idea how to sneak into that mall base without getting caught so I could find out more about my family that way. And Tomas’s dad was still holed up in meetings in their house, making snooping around there totally impossible. 

So, that was my situation as of two days (now Friday of the first week in April) after my first time at Seraph HQ. Basically, I was in a holding pattern for the moment on everything. Which was kind of okay in some ways, because I had a shit load of homework to do. And I had to do it, or Mom and Dad would wonder what was keeping me so busy that I couldn’t keep up with my classes. Which I really didn’t want them to do. They had to keep thinking that my life was completely normal, boring, safe, and all that. 

To that end, I was sitting in the library during lunch hour, poring over some notes while filling in a worksheet for math. I was so focused on the problems on the page in front of me (and the much more personal problems filling up an entire vault in the back of my head) that I didn’t notice the other problem make her way into the library until she was right up at the edge of the table. 

“Aww, look at this,” Paige announced to a couple of the random cronies who liked to follow her around looking for scraps, “a little boy wandered into school and got lost.” She adopted a tone like she was talking to a child then, leaning in with wide, expressive eyes. “Hiya, little buddy. Are you sure you shouldn’t be with the rest of the seventh grade in the other school? This…” She made an exaggerated encompassing motion with her finger. “… is the big people library.” 

I counted to three before responding, but it didn’t help. Maybe I should’ve counted longer. Or not engaged at all. Instead, I plastered a fake smile to my face and turned to look at the taller girl. “Wow! Library! That’s a big word, Paige!” My voice dropped, turning dark. “Can you spell it?” 

The glare that she shot right back at me was almost chilling. “Sure,” the girl all-but snarled. “Library. It starts with L. As in…” She reached out to poke me firmly in the forehead. “Loser.” 

Okay, I definitely should have left it alone there. I should’ve gotten up and walked away. That was the right thing to do, the mature thing to do. I, however, did not do the right, mature thing. It was just… too much. Everything I’d taken in lately, everything I’d found out and was putting up with, the stress of having no idea what to do next about any of it, was just… it was too much.

So, I did what I really shouldn’t have. I took a swing at her. Lunging up from the chair and turning, I lashed out with a wild punch. Paige, taken completely by surprise, took the punch on her cheek and reeled with a yelp. She tripped over her own feet and fell backward, her hand reflexively grabbing for something and catching my extended arm to pull me down as well. She hit the floor on her back a second before I landed on top of her, still surprised not only by that little fall, but also by the fact that I’d swung at her at all. I hadn’t meant to do that. 

Before I could recover (and while Paige herself still looked totally shocked by the whole situation), two different people grabbed me by the shoulders and arms to pull me off of the other girl. One was Mandy, one of Paige’s devoted lackeys/’friends.’ The other was just some slightly older guy, a senior who had been studying a couple tables over before all this started.

What in the hell is going on over here?” The demanding voice came from one of the senior year teachers, a pot-bellied man with short blond hair wearing a dark suit with red suspenders visible through the open jacket. He was already walking (more like stalking) our way, looking between Paige and me as her other friend helped the girl up. “Just what do you kids think you’re doing?” 

Still breathing hard, I felt a rush of embarrassment and horror wash over me. What the hell was I doing? How did I let this happen? Why would I–damn it! My only solace was that at least I hadn’t been stupid enough to use any powers in my anger, but still. Taking a swing at Paige, actually hitting her? How was that going to help anything? What the hell was wrong with me?

Before I could actually find my voice, Paige actually spoke. “Nothing,” she said flatly, drawing surprised looks not only from me, but from the teacher and both lackeys too. One of the other girls opened her mouth to say something, only to get quickly elbowed by the one next to her. 

The teacher raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me, Miss Banners? Are you really trying to tell me that you and Miss Evans here weren’t just brawling across the floor of the library a moment ago?”

Somehow, I restrained the urge to reflexively agree with the man about how baffling that claim was. The senior student, who had still been holding my arm up to that point, released me and stepped out of the way, shrugging helplessly at the teacher as though he was just as confused. 

Paige, meanwhile, simply gave a short nod. “It’s no big deal. We weren’t fighting. Cassidy over there just jumped up too fast, we collided, and fell down.” She gave me a very brief look before turning back to the man, her voice careless and disinterested. “Her head hit my face. It was a dumb accident.” Eyes shifting back toward me to squint a bit, she added pointedly, “Wasn’t it?” 

I honestly had no idea why she was doing this. It was her big chance to actually get me in trouble. She hadn’t hit me first or anything. I had totally and completely started the actual physical fight. Hell, Paige hadn’t actually hit me at all. And she had three witnesses (two of whom were her friends, but I was pretty sure she didn’t even know the older boy) to back that up. Yet, despite all that, she was claiming this wasn’t a fight at all. Why would she do that? Why? What was her angle? 

Realizing everyone was looking at me, I belatedly gave a short nod. Confused as I was (and while part of me thought this might be a trap of some kind), there was no way I was going to argue right now. My voice was tight. “Yeah,” I managed to get out. “It was just an accident.” 

From the way he looked between us, I was almost positive that the teacher didn’t actually buy that. For a moment, it seemed like he was trying to decide if this was worth pursuing when both of us were claiming it wasn’t a fight. In the end, he must’ve decided against it, because the man just gave a short nod. “Fine. It was just an accident then. But…” He looked at me, squinting. “Let’s see if we can try to avoid any more of these accidents for awhile, shall we, Miss Evans?” 

Meeting his gaze, I swallowed slightly before nodding. I definitely agreed with that. As angry and frustrated as Paige tended to make me, I couldn’t just go around attacking her. Even if she totally deserved that punch and maybe a few–no, Cassidy, stop it right now. Shutting down that line of thought, I made myself answer as politely as possible, “Yes, sir. I’ll be more careful.” 

Accepting that after watching me for a long moment, the teacher replied, “See that you do. Because if something like this comes up again, I promise you that the other faculty will know where it started. And we won’t let it go again.” With that warning, the man turned to walk out of the library, grabbing his briefcase satchel off the table where he’d dropped it on his way over. 

Once he was gone, the older student who had helped pick me up looked at me. “Uh, you…” He paused, trying to decide how much he should say before eventually settling on, “You good?” 

I nodded, not trusting my voice, and the boy turned toward Paige. “For the record, I don’t know what your game is, but you totally had that punch coming. I think–” Stopping himself, the boy finally shook his head. “Whatever, I’m not getting into the drama. Just stop being a bitch.” 

He left then as well, walking out of the room. Halfway out, however, the boy stopped and frowned before looking back at me. “Hey, you coming?” He asked me. Clearly, he’d thought twice about leaving me alone in the library with Paige and her friends after what just happened. 

Honestly, he had a point. There was no way I was going to get anywhere with Paige right now. Not after I’d just hit her and she had a couple hangers-on standing around. She might’ve not wanted to escalate things to the school authorities for some reason (maybe just to keep herself out of the spotlight), but I was under no delusion that that would suddenly make us friends. In fact, I was pretty sure she was already planning out how to get her own form of revenge. 

So, I gave a short nod, grabbed my books from the table, and started out. On the way, I glanced back to Paige and her friends. All three were staring after me. The other two were glaring, their looks making it clear that they at least wanted to pay me back. Paige, on the other hand, looked different. Her expression was basically unreadable. She didn’t seem angry, more… curious? 

Whatever, maybe that just meant she was quietly plotting. Either way, I didn’t want to be in that room, so I followed the boy out to the hall, trying not to think about what would come next with Paige. The whole way, I was silently berating myself for losing my cool and taking that swing. 

“Hey,” the boy who was walking with me started as soon as we were out, “seriously, you okay? That chick really did have it coming for that shit in there, but uhh…” He paused, glancing at the now-closed doors of the library where Paige and her friends were. “I’d watch your back from now on. She and her minions don’t really strike me as people who just let stuff like that go.” 

As he spoke, I took another look at him. He was on the handsome side of things, though not quite as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as Tomas. Much taller than me, of course, but that wasn’t saying much. My best guess was that he was maybe an inch over six feet, with long brown hair that he wore in a ponytail. The school uniform (black pants, black blazer, and blue shirt) he was wearing had been personalized with a dark pink tie instead of the normal white one. People earned the right to wear different-colored ties (though the actual color still had to be approved by a faculty member) through various school services. It was a reward sort of thing. I wasn’t sure why he’d chosen to go with pink. 

“Uhh, yeah, probably not.” There was no need to get into the whole history between Paige and me (even the public version), so I just shrugged. “I’ll keep my eyes open.” Starting to turn, I stopped, looking back with an awkward, “Thanks for, you know, jumping in back there.” 

“No worries,” he replied. “You’re uh, Cassidy Evans, right?” His chin inclined. “I’m Owen Kright.” 

“Yup, that’s me,” I confirmed. It wasn’t surprising that he knew who I was. It wasn’t like my family was exactly private. “Wait, Owen Kright, didn’t you used to drive that awesome seventy-eight Firebird? I used to wait for you to pull in just so I could see it. What happened? I haven’t seen it in the lot lately.”

With a grimace, the boy replied, “Dad. Gotta get the grades back up or the car’s not the only thing I’ll be missing. That’s why I was in the library to begin with.” 

It was my turn to grimace. “Sorry we interrupted you then. Trust me, the last thing I want is to be responsible for keeping a hot thing like that off the streets.” 

His mouth opened, then shut as he coughed before shaking his head. “Don’t worry, like I said, it wasn’t your fault. But ahh, I do have to run if I’m gonna grab food before class starts. Mr. Tanners lets us bring food into class, but I kinda need to have the food to begin with.” 

“Oh, right, yeah.” Giving a quick nod, I waved him off. “Say no more. Flee for your food.” 

He started to, before slowing to look over his shoulder. “Hey, since you’re into that kind of thing, if I get my car back, maybe you can take it for a spin once you get your license. Let me know!” 

Waving blankly at him, I frowned thoughtfully to myself for a moment before shaking it off. The hallway was pretty busy, so I stepped into the passing line of people and headed for my own locker. 

With any luck, I could get through the rest of the day without any more confrontations with Paige. 

******

Luck was with me. Sort of. Enough that I didn’t have another run-in with Paige for the rest of the day (I saw her, but we ignored each other), but not enough that I actually got answers to any of the many problems I still had to deal with. Apparently ‘not making things even worse’ was going to have to be good enough. 

After being brought home by Jefferson, I thanked him and stepped out of the car in front of the house. Hearing a sound from behind me, I turned just in time to see Dad coming out of the front door, accompanied by another man. This guy basically seemed to embody ‘distinguished handsome’. He looked like George Clooney in his prime. He and my father were deep in conversation until they both saw me, then immediately stopped talking. 

“Ah, Eric, this is my daughter, Cassidy.” Dad gestured to me, then to the man. “Cassidy, this is Eric Abbot, a business associate.” 

“I’m surprised we haven’t met before,” Mr. Abbot announced, extending a hand to me. “Your father and I have been doing business for a long time.” 

Right, so which supervillain was he? That was the first thought that popped into my head, even as I accepted the man’s offered hand. Belatedly, I found my voice. “You must be friends then.” 

“Oh, I’d like to think so,” he replied, giving my hand a firm shake before releasing it. “Good enough friends that I know you’ll be getting your license soon. Your father says you’re bouncing off the walls about it.” 

With a soft chuckle, Dad spoke up. “Normally, anyway. I think the kid’s trying to play it cool lately to convince me she’s mature.” He pointed at me then. “But I’m onto you. I see all. Remember, I know when you’ve been bad or good.” 

“That’s Santa,” I pointed out mildly. 

“Yeah?” My father gave me a look. “And if you think that proves me wrong, have I got some interesting news for you, Sparky.” 

After another minute of back and forth (that actually made me even more sad as it went on for how much it made me think of the great times I’d had with my dad), the two of them excused themselves to head out. The last thing I heard between the two was Dad telling Mr. Abbot that he and ‘Melissa’ (his wife?) would have to come over for dinner some time. Then they got in the car with Jefferson and drove off. 

Shaking my head and muttering under my breath, I had just turned back to head into the house once more when my phone buzzed. Belatedly, I realized it was my extra phone, the one I used for Touched stuff. With a brief look around to make sure I was clear, I checked the text. It was from a number I didn’t recognize, reading, ‘Wtf did you do?’ Even as I stared at that in confusion, a second message came in from the same number. ‘It’s Pack. Call.’ 

What did I do? What did I do? Confused, I hesitated before turning away from the house. I trotted off the grounds, leaving through the gate with a wave to the guard there and an explanation that I was going for a walk. 

Only when I was safely away from home did I hit the button to dial the number Pack was calling from. And only while it was ringing did I think to quickly turn on the voice changer program. It came to life just as the phone was answered. “Paintball?” 

“Pack?” I replied after giving a quick look around the empty street. “What’s going on? Are you o–” 

“What the fuck did you say to Eits? What was he doing for you?” came the quick interruption. 

“Uhh, wait, what do you–” 

That was as far as I got before Pack pushed on. “Look, I’ll give you an address. You better get your ass down here. And you better be ready to explain what the hell is going on.

“Because whatever Eits was doing for you, some motherfuckers just beat the shit out of him because of it. Paintball, it’s… you… fuck, you just better get here soon. 

“He’s in really bad shape.”

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Patreon Snippets 12B (Summus Proelium)

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Thanks once again to all $10+ Patrons. These are the two snippets that were requested for Summus Proelium. 

Standing outside his daughter’s private hospital room in their own home, Blackjack… or rather, Eric Abbot as he was known to those close to him, put a hand on the door and looked through the window. He stared at the little girl in the bed as she wrote intently in the notebook propped up against her knees. Several stuffed animals were gathered along the side of the bed as though listening while she dictated what she was writing. Her story was accompanied by grand gestures that kept interrupting her own writing. Once she apparently wrote something that she found so amusing she actually started laughing, the sound carrying through the door. It was a sight that made Eric smile, while a long, heavy shudder ran through him at the brief thought of what could have been.

For so long now, he had been terrified that his beautiful, amazing little girl would never grow up, that she would never be able to see all the things he wanted so desperately to show her. Every day when he saw how wonderful, brilliant, and effortlessly charming his child was, Eric despaired of what would happen to her without the medicine she needed. It had driven him to greater and greater heights of anger and frustration. But he never let her see it. He would not scare his little girl like that. Not when there was already so much for her to be afraid of.  

But she knew. She always knew just how upset he was. And often, it had seemed as though she was taking care of him more than the other way around. She was so strong, so brave. Disease be damned, she was one of the most amazing people he knew. Yes, he was biased. But she truly was remarkable, to handle all of this as well as she did. It inspired him more than he could ever articulate. His daughter was his everything, and if the worst had happened, if he had truly lost her…

Stepping into the room, the man looked to the two doctors who were working in the corner. Greeting them by name briefly, he asked the pair to step outside for a few minutes. Only once they were gone and he had locked the door, did Eric let his guard down a little bit and allow himself to let go of some of the rigid control with which he held himself. He felt his eyes grow a little wet as he stepped over and spoke up. “Hey, Smelly,” he greeted his daughter, a teasing nickname that was a combination of Small and Melly (for Melissa) 

“Hi, Daddy!” Melissa piped up, looking at him eagerly. Every day, Eric was amazed and humbled by his daughter’s resilience and ability to cope with this terrible situation. Sometimes it seemed as though she had been in the hospital forever, trapped in this room with her brittle bones. Bones that would have snapped from very little pressure. Bones that, without Worthy’s medicine, would have rotted away and disintegrated into a poison that would kill her. 

They’d stopped the disease from getting worse for quite a while, but they still couldn’t push things. Her bones were so fragile, and would continue being fragile until further into the treatment, that there was no way to let her live a normal life right now. They couldn’t risk allowing Melissa to run outside, play with others, or do… anything a little girl should have been able to do. She escaped through her writing into worlds of grand adventure and dashing heroes. In her stories, she could be anything, do anything. She could create universes worth of excitement that made her long days and nights spent in that single bed more tolerable.  

Sitting down on the chair that he pulled closer, Eric picked up the girl’s newest stuffed animal, the pink crocodile with the cloth skateboard attached to its feet that Sterling and Elena (or Uncle Stan and Aunt Ellen, as she knew them) had convinced her to name after their own daughter, Cassidy. 

For a moment, he just turned the toy over in his hands, staring down at it while his fingers shook. He had to take a breath and steady himself. It was so strange. He could order men to their death, could look someone like Cuélebre right in the eyes without flinching. He could stand down any threat. But the emotions he felt as he sat here with his daughter could be his undoing. He felt a shudder run through him once more as his eyes closed and a few more tears fell. 

“Daddy.” There was a small hand on his arm, and Eric opened his eyes to see that his daughter had shuffled over a bit to be next to him. She was staring at him with a wide, understanding gaze that seemed far more wise than her tender years. “If I have to stay sick, it’s okay. Please don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be sad.” 

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even swallow past the hard lump that formed in his throat. Rising from his own chair, the man moved over and sat on the bed, gathering the girl up into his lap and hugging her gently to his chest. “My girl,” he murmured in a voice filled with wonder and amazement at the simple truth of that statement. “You’re my baby girl. My brave little girl.” 

Kissing the top of her head tenderly, Eric finally shook his head. “I’m not sad, Smelly Melly. I’m not sad at all. I’m happy.” Swallowing, he added, “I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time.”  

Leaning her head back, Melissa gently poked at his face, her expression curious. “But you’re crying, Daddy. You aren’t supposed to cry when you’re happy. Did you get broken?” 

The question made him chuckle a little despite himself, and the man nodded once. “Maybe I did get a little broken. But you won’t be. You–” Once more, the words caught in his throat, and he had to give a light chuckle of bafflement at the absurdity of his emotions. Maybe Melissa was right, maybe he really was broken. The years of being terrified for his daughter’s life, of working so hard to keep her safe from this horrific disease, had taken its toll. Especially the past few weeks, as he dealt with the mounting desperation and panic at the possibility of losing her for real. 

“Baby, we found it,” he finally managed. His hand gently touched her face, fingers tenderly brushing along the girl’s cheek. “We found your medicine. We found all of it. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got your medicine here, right here in the house. Where it should have been the whole time. We’ve got all of it, Smelly. Every last bit.” With each word, his voice cracked with a bit more emotion, while he watched the expression on his daughter’s face. 

She was staring wide-eyed at him. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “So I can get better?” Her voice was tentative, making it clear how hesitant she was to express even that much hope. Which he could hardly blame her for after everything that had happened. “Really better?” 

His head gave a short, jerky nod as a small, emotional laugh escaped him. It was a laugh born not of amusement, but of uncontained emotion that had to escape in that moment. “Yes, baby girl. Yes, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to have your medicine and you’ll get better just like Dr. Worthy said. You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to be safe. You’re gonna be strong, and you’re gonna grow up, and… and you’ll be okay.” 

Once the last word escaped him, Eric found himself unable to say anything else. The tears had started in earnest as soon as he saw them appear in his daughter’s eyes. He pulled her closer and the two hugged, father and daughter clinging to one another against the storm of emotion that swept through each of them. 

It took both a few minutes to collect themselves enough to speak again. Once he could finally find his voice, Eric leaned back and smiled at his daughter a bit shakily. “See, maybe you’re broken too.” 

“I’ll be broken if I can stay with you, Daddy,” Melissa informed him. Which was enough to make the man lose himself in another tight embrace with the beautiful, amazing little girl who made everything he had ever done in his life worth it just to be there with her. Nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing. Just being right there with her. 

“No, sweet thing,” the man finally managed. “You won’t be broken. You’ll be amazing. You’ll be a writer, a real writer. You’ll travel and see all the amazing things you’ve ever wanted to see. You’ll do everything you want to do, because you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine, my baby girl.”  

The two of them sat together like that for another minute before Melissa sniffed once and quietly announced, “I miss Dr. Worthy, Daddy.” Her voice was hesitant, and she glanced up guiltily, as though she felt bad about bringing up a sad moment right then, at a time in which they were supposed to be happy. 

Eric, however, gave a short nod. “I know, baby. I miss him too. I sure wish he could be here right now. I wish he could see just how much you’re going to grow up. But you know what we have to do to make up for him being gone?” 

The girl’s head shook slowly. “Nuh uh. What, Daddy?” Even as she said the words, she clung to him a little tighter, needing the reassurance of his physical presence to prove to herself that she wasn’t dreaming. 

“Live,” Eric informed her with a little poke to her nose that made the girl giggle. “You make Dr. Worthy’s work worth it by living the biggest, best life you can, okay, Smelly? You were the last big thing he worked on. So when you’re better, you’re gonna go out there and be whatever you want to be. You’re gonna live. That’s what you can do for Dr. Worthy. You’ll be out there telling your stories to everyone in the world.” 

“Can I tell you a story right now, Daddy?” she asked quickly, reaching out to pick up the nearest notebook, which he could see was filled with her neat, careful handwriting. “I made up a new one last night.” 

“Of course, you know I love your stories,” he assured her before settling up against the headboard of the bed. Letting his daughter adjust herself until she was comfortably resting against him, the man put an arm around her and listened while she began to read her newest story. Maybe it would have been strange to some people that she was the one who read him a story rather than the other way around. But he didn’t care. This was what his girl wanted. 

Fairly soon, it was clear that all the excitement had worn her out, and he could hear the mounting tiredness in her voice as she pushed on to get through the story. Eventually, he held the notebook and turned the pages for her while she laid back against his chest and simply read the words. Even that eventually trailed off into more and more silence between the words as her eyes would close for a few seconds, open again to read the first few words her gaze found, then close once more. 

Then she was asleep. For a while, Eric simply sat there with her, tenderly stroking the girl’s hair as he whispered soothing words to ensure she knew, even in her unconscious state, that she was safe and that he would never let anything bad happen. The thought of losing her, of being so helpless to protect his little girl…

Realizing he needed to get up before he ended up waking Melissa, Eric very carefully extracted himself and straightened. He took a moment to gently lay her on the pillow and put the blanket over her before standing up. It was okay, he had to remind himself. She was safe and she was going to stay that way. 

Quietly ordering the computer to lower the lighting, he walked out of the room. Closing the door behind him, the man was met by a friend that he’d known for exactly as long as he had known Samuel Worthy. Elarc Sorn, the former mercenary for Braintrust who had been convinced in that meeting three years earlier to switch sides, stood with a cell phone in one hand. 

“Reports are in,” he informed his boss after having waited patiently for him to be ready. “We lost a few people. Six dead, another eight arrested at the scenes. About thirty or forty thousand dollars worth of damages to a couple of our sites. Don’t have to reclaim anything cuz they backed off as soon as word got out that the vials were off the market.” 

“They were a distraction-force,” Eric replied flatly. “They never intended to hold our territory, only do enough damage to force us to split our resources to handle it. And to sow discord among our people if I didn’t address the situation properly, make them see me putting them in danger to protect my own daughter.” 

Sorn nodded once. “That does seem to have been the goal, sir. But they didn’t do nearly as much damage as they could have.” 

“They did enough,” Eric informed him. “We’ll respond in kind.” As he spoke, the man reached for the phone in his jacket pocket. Instead, he found something else. The skateboarding pink crocodile. Somehow, the stuffed toy had ended up in his pocket. Probably courtesy of his daughter wanting to share something with him. For a moment, he gazed at the creature. Cassidy. Cassidy the Crocodile. 

Somehow, his thoughts turned to the boy who had been so responsible for making this night possible. Paintball. Whoever the boy was under that mask, he was very clearly going to be important going forward. Important not only to Eric and his people, but others as well. There was more going on there, Eric knew. While his power wasn’t telling him exactly what, he knew there was something big just lurking under the surface. Something tantalizingly close. 

Exhaling, he absently put the toy away while looking back to his subordinate. “For now, let people recover. They’ve all done enough. Make sure compensation goes to the families of those we lost, and get our legal representation for the ones who were picked up. I want them out as soon as possible, and I want them eager to jump back into things. We need everyone we can get.” 

Walking down the hall, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice. “Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners think the war is over. 

“But it’s just beginning.” 

*******

The front doors of the Evans mansion closed behind Izzy, Damarko, Amber, and Jae as the four of them walked out together after watching the movie in that giant home theater. No one said anything until they reached Damarko’s car. Then Amber turned, glanced around briefly, before taking a knee and embracing Izzy. “How’re you really doing?” 

Izzy’s eyes closed, as she told herself not to stiffen up, and definitely not to push Amber away. She knew the other girl meant well. She was trying to help, trying to make her feel safer. But being touched like that, it just… she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Not after…

Shaking that off, she gave a quick squeeze in return before stepping back in a way that she hoped wouldn’t make Amber feel bad or anything. There was a lump in her throat as she spoke with a quiet, “I could be a lot worse.” 

“A lot worse as in, ‘could be enslaved by some Fell-Gang assholes?’” Damarko asked, “Or a lot worse as in, ‘could have to stay somewhere other than the biggest house in the whole city?’” Without looking, he caught the elbow that Amber tried to shove at him before adding, “She knows I’m just trying to lighten the mood.” Pausing then, he added, “You do know that, right?” 

“Uh huh,” Izzy confirmed, glancing to Jae. “You’re really different like this, you know?” 

It was like a switch had been flipped. The quiet, demure and barely responsive Jae straightened, raised her head, and smiled. At one point, Izzy had seen the old Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, and the way Jae switched from the persona she put on in public to the way she was now or as Carousel reminded her of him going between Clark Kent and Superman in the same scene. It was that much of an immediate and thorough switch. 

“I’d rather not be the same,” the Albino Asian girl replied, “in case the flame of my fame puts my name to acclaim and this dame is fair game to shame, claim, or maim.” 

“In other words, she’d rather be really different between her civvie self and her Touched self so no one recognizes her and causes problems. And see, I told you guys she holds all of that in at school and can’t help blurting out the rhymes as soon as she gets a chance,” Amber noted before focusing on Izzy. “So, you’re really okay right now? What’s… umm… you know, what’s it like living here?” 

“What’s Cassidy like, she means,” Damarko put in. “Is she this really spoiled rich girl in private? Does she like, have servants bring her towers of ice cream the size of your head?” He blinked at Amber and Jae. “What? I’m not blaming her. I would totally do that if my family owned half the city.” 

“She doesn’t notice,” Izzy quickly piped up. She waited until they were looking at her, then shrugged. “Cassidy. She doesn’t notice that she’s rich. Not really. Not… like… like that. It’s like… her family having so much money is like most people having legs.” 

Amber frowned. “Uh… what?” 

Trying to put her thoughts (she’d had them over the past couple days all jumbled up) into some kind of order, Izzy carefully explained, “I mean, a umm… a normal person with working legs, right? They walk around all day, and if they see someone who can’t walk, they feel bad for them and maybe think about how they might be able to help. Or they feel like… how much better they have it. But most of the time, they don’t really think about it. They don’t think about how good their legs are when they get up and walk to the kitchen. That’s what Cassidy is like with money. She’s not bad because she doesn’t think about how rich she is. When she sees someone without money, she tries to help them. But most of the time, she’s just… a person with working legs. She has money, it doesn’t… register, or whatever unless it’s really pointed out. Someone with legs isn’t bad just because they don’t think about how useful that is most of the time. It’s just their life. Having so much money is her life.” 

“Do you like her?” That was Damarko, getting straight to the point. “I mean, do you think she’s cool?” 

For a brief moment, Izzy considered the question. “I don’t… know her very much,” she carefully answered. “I know she’s keeping secrets. I think she might have a boyfriend or something that she doesn’t want her mom and dad to know about. But… yeah. Yeah, she’s pretty cool. And she’s funny. I… she’s not anything like how I expected the Evans’ daughter to be.” 

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Amber agreed with a snort. “But seriously, we knew she was cool. Good project partner anyway, and that absolutely translates into other things. So if shit goes down out here, she will totally have your back.” 

Blinking, Izzy carefully pointed out, “I don’t… think she’d be able to help very much if any bad guys showed up. And hey, you guys never said you were friends with the richest girl in town.”

“I meant have your back as in she’d stand behind you,” came the grinning retort. “Which is the safest place to be, cuz you’re Izzy God Damn Amor.” With a wink, Amber added, “And we weren’t really that close until Mr. Dorn teamed us up for that school thing a few weeks ago.” She hesitated as though considering something about that before shaking it off. “Anyway, enough about Cassie. While we’re here, there’s something else we should talk about.

“Paintball. What’s that guy’s deal?” 

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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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Interlude 2A – Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

A black car, indistinguishable from any other similar luxury sedan, pulled around the corner of the parking garage. Ahead, a dozen men stood in the open space near a couple of lonely cars, while the rest of the spots remained empty. Of those men, ten held odd-looking submachine guns and wore what appeared to be white lab coats over dark body armor. Their outfits signified them as members of the so-called Braintrust, the Fell-Gang focused around inventions and super science.

The remaining two men, meanwhile, were even more clearly members of that gang. The first, a taller man (just under seven feet) and rather heavyset, wore a white surgical mask and what looked like medical scrubs with various scalpels and other tools filling the pockets. His white hair was very long, falling to his shoulders. The man beside him was much shorter, standing just a hair over five and a half feet. His own costume consisted of several pieces of what appeared to  be scavenged robot pieces haphazardly stuck to his body, and a helmet that was straight out of an ancient black and white sci fi movie. It looked like a metal ball with a grill around the entire front like a small car radiator and several antenna sticking out of it in every direction.

The pair, who worked together quite often, were known as Leech and Rotwang, respectively. Just in front of them on the ground sat a silver briefcase with a thumbprint scanner. All of the dozen assembled figures watched the dark sedan without moving or speaking.

For a moment, the car remained motionless as well. Then it rolled forward the rest of the way, approaching to within ten feet or so before the engine was shut off. The sole figure within the car watched the group for a brief handful of seconds, before opening the door to get out. This new arrival was also clearly Touched. He wore a pair of perfectly tailored black slacks, dark leather shoes polished to a gleaming shine, a black shirt with a matching bolo tie that had a red gem sitting right at the collar, and a white duster coat that fell to his ankles. His entire head was covered by a black helmet with an attached golden mask in the shape of a face. Finally, the thin gloves he wore matched the gold mask.

“That’s far enough, Blackjack,” Leech spoke up the moment their guest had stepped out of his car. The tall man nodded to one of the nearby troops. “Go scan it.”

It was impossible to see the newcomer’s face, but his body language expressed something resembling amusement, as he gestured to the car once before starting to put his hands in his pockets.

“Hey!” That was Rotwang, the robotics-focused Fell-Touched pointing. “You–you get your hands out where we can see them.”

Head tilting a little, the man known as Blackjack obediently took his hands from his pockets. He showed them, first his palms and then the back of his hands, like a magician proving he had nothing in them just before a trick. Which did nothing to ease the trepidation of the men watching him, for some reason.

By that point, one of the Braintrust troops had picked up a long, tube-like device the length of a rolling pin, with a bright blue light at one end and buttons at the other. He ran it over the car, moving slowly from the front to the back, then up again on the opposite side. He tensed up a bit while passing close to Blackjack, finishing his work and quickly stepping a bit further away before looking to his bosses. “Nothing. No one else in the car.”

“You did say to come alone,” Blackjack idly reminded them, his body language far more relaxed than the openly armed and more numerous group.

“Yeah,” Leech agreed, “we did. But you know, call me crazy, lots of people do, I just don’t see the leader of La Casa actually going anywhere without back-up. You don’t seem that stupid.”

In response, Blackjack simply lifted his head slightly. “We’re here to do business, gentlemen. It’s a simple transaction. Although…” He turned just a bit to look at the case on the ground. “As technologically-apt as your organization is, I would find it surprising if you were to fit what I came for into something that small.”

Quickly, Rotwang blurted, “We’re not ripping you off. Business transaction, like you said.” He pointed at the case, the robot-like gauntlet on his arm glowing blue as the case floated up from the ground and came to him. “Right in here, we’ve got just what you need. Three doses of super soldier serum. They’ll make any trio of people you want as strong, as fast, as good as any Olympic level athlete, as good as the best special forces soldier out there.”

For the first time, a hint of something other than amusement entered Blackjack’s voice. “That is quite impressive. But it’s not what I came for. It’s not what we agreed to.”

“Yeah, we know,” Leech assured him. “You came for Worth. And he’s here. He’ll walk you through whatever you need to make sure you understand how to use that stuff.  But sorry, he can’t go with you. But like my friend here said, we’re not ripping you off. You asked for Worth’s help in producing one super soldier. We’re giving you enough serum to make three, and not charging you any more than you already agreed to. You’re coming out plenty ahead in this deal.”   

After a very brief pause, the La Casa leader exhaled. “When one comes to an agreement, it is best to stick to that. I didn’t come for three doses of a super soldier serum. I came for Dr. Worthy himself. He and I agreed to the terms of his temporary employment by me. Not for some of his medicine, for the man himself. He will be coming with me. That is what was arranged.”

“Now, see, you’re not listening.” Leech shook his head. “That’s okay. We’ll work this out. Worth!” Raising his voice, he looked over to one of the nearby cars until another man emerged. This one wore no costume, though he was indeed Touched. A personal preference. He was an older man, his head mostly bald with some remaining gray hair. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans.

“Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack greeted the man. “I’m told there’s been some discrepancy in our deal.”

“Ah, well, that is…” Worthy winced a little, glancing to Leech and Rotwang before looking back to the La Casa leader. “My apologies. It seems I may have agreed to your request too hastily. My… work demands that I stay with my current organization. I simply cannot spare the time for a one-on-one situation with you. But, ahh, as they said, the vials in that case will provide everything you’re looking for. Three times what you were looking for, in fact. You wanted me to help you enhance one person. That briefcase will allow you to enhance three.”

Examining his gold-gloved hands for a moment, Blackjack was quiet. The assembled group of Braintrust Touched and troops looked uncertainly to one another until the man finally spoke. “Our arrangement will be fulfilled as originally stated. You will come with me, I will compensate you for your time, and then you will be released to travel wherever you would like to go with your quite substantial payment.” He spoke matter-of-factly, leaving no room for doubt.

Even as he finished speaking, the ten assembled troops all snapped their guns up into position, aiming at him. At the same time, Rotwang pointed at him with his metal gauntlets, which hummed with energy. And Leech took a step back behind his companion, a scalpel appearing in his hand. “Now, now,” the tall scientist announced, “we can all walk out of this without losing anything. You take the case with the serums, we take the money, everyone’s happy…ish. This doesn’t have to get ugly. But if it does, you are at a disadvantage.”

“So it would seem,” the other man replied vaguely, his attention seemingly focused on the case before he lifted his head to slowly look along the line of weapons pointed at him. “But looks can be deceiving.”

“Now don’t you go starting anything,” Leech snapped, clearly trying to sound more confident than he felt. “We outnumber and outgun you. But we don’t want to start a war with La Casa.”

Rather than reply, Blackjack allowed his gaze to sweep over the group once more. Eyes hidden behind his golden mask, he focused on his Touched-gift, his power.

Some Touched out there had what they called a danger-sense. Blackjack, on the other hand, had an opportunity-sense. It would tell him when there was something he could do to achieve his immediate goals, allowing him to pull knowledge seemingly out of nowhere, so long as that knowledge related to his goal at the time. It wasn’t perfect or all-knowing, but it was pretty damn helpful. Such as now, as he looked toward one of the armed men.

Hates being some random thug for a bunch of geeks and nerds, his power informed him. Thinks they’re stupid, but needs the money because he has a family to support and no one will hire him.

His gaze moved on, sweeping a bit further before slowing as it found one of the guns another man was holding.

Hasn’t been maintained properly. Will fatally misfire the next time the trigger is pulled.

Clearing his throat, the man finally spoke up after that long silence. “Three hundred thousand dollars, and permanent employment within my organization.”

“Um.” With a frown, Worthy shook his head. “It’s not the money, I assure you. And even if it was, three hundred thousand is substantially less than we originally–”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Blackjack informed him. He lifted his gaze once more, looking straight at the first man his power had informed him of. Despite the mask covering his face, their gazes locked. The man understood. He knew.

He moved, quickly jerking his weapon over and shoving it up against the back of Leech’s neck (though as tall as the other man was, he had to lean up to do it). “Nobody move!”

That, of course, prompted every other person to whirl that way, weapons moving off of the La Casa leader to point at their own man.

“You… idiot,” the tall man snarled. “Do you really think we’d give you guns that would work if they were pointed at one of us?”

“No,” his Benedict Arnold retorted. “And I don’t trust this Star Wars shit anyway. That’s why–” With his other hand, he produced a pistol from the inside of his lab coat, using that to point at the man’s head instead. “– I like bringing my own. Now nobody fucking move!”

“You can’t possibly think you’ll get away with this,” Rotwang snapped, torn between looking at Blackjack and looking at the traitorous henchman. “You’re really gonna trust that psycho to pay you?”

“That’s the thing,” the armed man retorted without taking his pistol away from being pointed at Leech’s neck, “This guy doesn’t lie. He makes a deal, he keeps it. That’s the reputation he’s got. He promises something, he’s gonna get it for ya. And call me crazy, but I see more opportunity for advancement in his organization than with a bunch of psychos who call themselves geniuses but are too stupid to just take a government research contract and make millions.”  

Speaking calmly, Blackjack announced, “Now then. Dr. Worthy. If you would please get in the car. And if anyone tries to stop you, my new friend here, Mr…”

“Sorn,” the turncoat supplied. “Elarc Sorn.”

“Sorn,” Blackjack repeated with a nod. “Mr. Sorn here will complete a science experiment of his own, in determining how many bullets can occupy the same space as the good Dr. Leech’s skull.”

Slowly, Worthy did as he was told, moving over to the car before stepping down into the front passenger seat. The entire time, the assembled goons bristled, torn between trying to stop it from happening, and the much more important duty of keeping their employer alive. They also, as he had silently predicted, spread out a bit to surround the car.

Once Worthy was seated in the vehicle, Blackjack addressed Sorn again. “Your turn. You and your tall former employer there have a seat in the back.”

“Now you just hold on with that,” Rotwang snapped. “If you think we’re just gonna let you walk away with my partner, you’ve got another thing coming. Maybe we don’t want to start a war with La Casa, but you sure as hell don’t want a war with the Braintrust either. If the others find out you’ve taken one of our own, you’re gonna have every last one of us coming after you.”

“A horde of utterly unhinged mad scientists and their parade of experiments does not sound like a picnic, no,” the La Casa leader agreed. “Happily, it will not come to that. I’ve no intention of harming Dr. Leech, or taking him any further than the exit of this garage. So long as each of you wait here until he returns.”

Letting that sit for just a brief moment to allow the group to believe it was the only choice on the table and see how unsavory it was, he then added something better for them. “Of course, if you’d like a bit more assurance, perhaps your man there can come with. There is room for three in the back, after all. If you squeeze.”

As expected, Leech preferred that option. The man was far more a doctor than a fighter, even if he was a villainous one. Having a trained and armed guard along as well made him more comfortable with the idea.

Considering the man who was holding a gun on him had also been one of those same trained and armed guards mere moments earlier, perhaps he had yet to truly think that through.

Regardless, the trio moved to the car and slowly, carefully got in while everyone pointed guns at each other. Through it all, Blackjack waited calmly. As the doors closed, he let his gaze sweep over the assembled group of tense, angry faces. In full view of their stares, he took a few steps forward, bending to take up the case from the ground.

“We’ll consider this a bonus to compensate for the hiccups in this transaction.” Straightening, case in one hand, he added, “You’ll find the agreed-upon payment in the trunk of the yellow Toyota there.”

“What–huh?” Turning a bit to look at the car in question behind them, Rotwang shook his head. “How could you possibly have the money waiting here? That car’s been there since we arrived, and we didn’t tell you where the meeting would be until we made it. There’s no way you could have known where to leave the money. You’re making that up.”

Head tilting, Blackjack simply asked, “Am I?”

Staring at him for a moment, the armor-clad man finally waved for one of the men to go check. The guard did so, finding the trunk already popped. As he pulled the door open, the man tugged a black duffle bag from within, unzipped it, and whistled. “Cash, boss. Lots of cash. Looks like all of it.”

How?” Rotwang demanded in disbelief. “How the hell could you know what the meeting point would be before we did, when we set it?”

His smile hidden behind the gold mask, yet fully audible in his voice, Blackjack replied, “Perhaps you should look into being less predictable. It will serve you well in the long run.”

There was no way, of course, that he would spoil the effect by revealing that he’d simply identified two dozen of the most likely places for this sort of meeting to take place, based on territory close to the edge of what Braintrust called their own. All he had to do was look for secluded, protected areas away from prying eyes that could be quickly and temporarily secured, and then have his men deposit identical bags of cash at each one ahead of time. As soon as this one had been identified as the proper location, the others had been quietly retrieved.

It was a bit of work for what amounted to theatrics. But making your potential opponents believe that you could predict their actions with that level was often worth it. Especially if it made them start second-guessing themselves, or wondering if there were (more) traitors in their midst.

That and it was fun seeing the looks on their faces.

Quietly wishing them all a good day, and promising once again to release Leech at the exit to the garage, he moved to take the driver’s seat once more. “Now then, gentlemen. Shall we conclude this?” With those words, he started the car, slowly reversing past the guards before turning and heading for the ramp once more.

“The rest of the Trust isn’t going to be happy about you taking Worth away,” Leech informed him. “He has incredibly sensitive and important work he still needs to do.”

“He will be back eventually,” Blackjack absently assured him. “When he’s done with his new work.” He parked at the exit then, the dark street ahead of them. “I believe this is the stop for you and your escort.”

For a moment, it looked as though Leech was about to say something else. But he seemed to think better, opening his door and extracting himself. His bodyguard followed, standing there with the door open.

“We’ll keep the arrangement,” Leech informed him, as though he had a choice. “Fine. But you know what wasn’t part of the arrangement? Turning one of our own men into a traitor.”

He nodded to the guard beside him, who smirked, lifted his energy-weapon to point at Sorn in the backseat, and pulled the trigger.

The gun promptly exploded in his hand. Because of course Blackjack had ensured that the man who came to escort Leech was the one with the gun that was about to critically misfire. The resulting explosion was small, but it burned both the guard, and Leech beside him. They stumbled back, half-falling.

Blackjack, meanwhile, hit the gas and pulled away with his hired scientist and new employee. “That, I predict, will not go over well back at your base.”

*****

 

A short time later, Worthy stood with Blackjack in what looked like a hospital room, though it was actually deep in the heart of a safe house. Sorn was being briefed by one of the La Casa lieutenants on exactly what would be expected of him as a member of the organization.

“I don’t understand,” the scientist started. “Why are we here? Who’s the… the girl?” He nodded to the small figure lying in the bed, her body filled with tubes as machines beeped steadily through their work of keeping her alive. The tiny, pale girl with light brown hair was dwarfed by all the medical equipment, and couldn’t have been older than five or six.

“This, Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack informed him, “is your patient. My daughter, Melissa. I didn’t hire you to create another soldier for me. I hired you to save my daughter’s life. Her… condition is critical. She has an advanced case of–”

“Rot Bone,” Worthy finished for him, his voice breathless. “She’s suffering from Rot Bone, isn’t she? The worst case I’ve seen in a still-living patient, I would guess.”

There were other names for it, but Rot Bone, as it was most commonly known, was a disease that had been created by a Fell-Touched who went by the same name. There was no known cure, and once infected, the disease essentially did as advertised. It caused the bones within a person’s body to (some more slowly than others) rot away and disintegrate, turning to a poison that gradually killed them.

Rot Bone, the disease creator himself, had already long-since been thrown into the inescapable Breakwater prison. If not, Blackjack would have taken the man apart and made him beg for the honor of saving Melissa’s life. But he was unreachable, making Dr. Worthy the next best candidate.

“Your best work is in enhancing the human body, making one more powerful, stronger, better,” Blackjack reminded the man. “I need you to do that for my daughter. I need you to make her strong enough to survive this. Enhance her.

“Do this, and I will make certain you never lack for anything for the rest of your life.”

*******

Two and a half years later/six months ago.

 

“You’re dying.”

The simple words came from Blackjack, as he sat at a hospital bed, watching the man lying within it. A man who was far more at home on the other side of the bed.

“Yes,” Samuel Worthy confirmed quietly before coughing. “Afraid you can’t hide from the devil forever. We had some fun times though, didn’t we, old friend?” He gave a weak smile, his exposed face pale and drawn. “I had a good run. Gotta say, didn’t expect to spend so long on this one project. Didn’t expect to stay with you through all this.”

Slowly, Blackjack reached up, taking his golden mask down to reveal his own face. He had often been told that he looked like George Clooney in his first days of playing Danny Ocean. Now, however, his expression was far more lost than that famous leading man of such charisma and charm. “I didn’t expect it either, my friend. You saved Melissa’s life. She’s okay now, thanks to you. If I could do anything for you–”

“Don’t,” Worthy interrupted, shaking his head. “I’m done. I’ve done enough with my life. You though… you take care of that girl. She’s a good kid. Deserves every chance she’s got. Took a long time, but these last few treatments should finish stabilizing her.”

“Last few treatments,” Blackjack… or as his family knew him, Eric Abbot, echoed.

“You remember what I said?” Worthy asked while reaching out to grasp his hand weakly. “One syringe per month, every month for the next year. Do that, finish her treatment, and she’ll be okay. The enhancements we’ve done, she’s beaten the disease. But if we don’t stabilize them properly, they’ll fall apart again.”

“One syringe per month for twelve months,” Eric confirmed. “I understand. Thank you. You–what you’ve done for my family… what you mean to Melissa…”

“Just keep that kid safe,” Worthy insisted, before suddenly coughing violently. That went on for a minute, until the man was left lying weak and exhausted, his eyes barely open. “I’m sorry… there’s not time to make more. Twelve… that should be enough. Make sure the… the syringes are kept in a safe place. You… have a safe place, right?”

Taking his friend’s hand and squeezing a little, Eric nodded. “Yes. Don’t worry about that. We’ll keep the syringes safe. I know just where to put them.

“La Casa owns a bank. They can go in a safe deposit box there.”

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